Struggling Readers/Phonics - Graded Readers

I have been teaching adult ESL learners how to read English by using Graded Readers and focusing on phonics. My Readers begin with short, appropriate dialogues, leading to stories, poems and essays; and my phonetic approach is also “graded” in the sense that I prioritize the lessons in an order of importance. In class the students almost always read out loud.

Do you use phonics? While searching for research on phonics, I came across the following observation about teaching children phonics which I believe also applies to Beginning adult English learners:

“When a child is taught phonics, the child will be able to recognize sounds in words and will be able to spell them correctly.

Children have problems in reading because they are not able to recognize the sounds of the letters of the alphabet in the words they read. ... It also means reading text accurately.”

Other articles:

English Is Soup! ...a phonics resource for ESL adults

Sophie Wang's Phonics Book for Adult ESL Students - Scribd

Phonics for Adult ESL Students LINC Themes. ... Literacy - High School to Adult Illustrated LINC/Life Skill Theme Units Finally a phonics book specifically for adult and young adult ESL students. This book includes an audio CD.

Phonics in the ESL Classroom – Is It Right for You? - BusyTeacher



Hi Paul, 

I'm so glad you brought this up! My volunteer tutors always ask about teaching phonics to our adult refugee and immigrant learners, and typically we steer them away from a heavy emphasis on phonetic literacy learning because many of our students are illiterate in their native languages as well as in English, and they speak little to no English, thus rendering the entire concept of phonics very difficult to even explain, much less use. However, English is such a tricky language when it comes to literacy, and knowing sounds and blends is so important to reading success. We favor introducing phonics in meaningful context and after learners have acquired at least some basic speaking vocabulary. For example, we guide our volunteers to teach useful vocabulary chunks for words the students are already encountering in their everyday environments - stop, street, stairs, etc. As the student learns to speak and read those words, the teacher then shows how they all have the same beginning blend of 'st,' and adds more 'st' words to that list as they learn them in other language chunks - stand up, stretch, staff, strawberry, etc.

I've been wanting more materials on phonics for adults, so thank you for sharing these resources! I'll read through them and look forward to input from others so I can continue learning about this topic. As someone who could not learn to read phonetically as a child, this topic in particular is one in which I hope to better understand and utilize with my learners. 

Hi Paul, 

Our program does incorporate phonics instruction into our English classes.  We run an intensive English program in which students are able to have 20 hours of instructional time per week.  Our adult students who have little to no education in their native language are very excited about learning basic literacy skills, and are often able to progress from absolute zero literacy to sounding out basic sentences within a year, which they are extremely proud of and enables them to be quite a bit more self sufficient.

I have been working on creating some Literacy level Adult ESL materials for the past several years.  There are several free resources and books available here:

Thanks for starting the discussion. 




I love your resources! I first saw them being used in the adult ESL classes at Georgia Piedmont Technical College, and I immediately went and ordered the books for my personal ESL library. Thanks for developing and sharing such a great resource!

Hi Paul, Kelsey and all, Thanks for sharing these resources, Paul. I found the Busy Teacher article on the pros and cons of teaching phonics really interesting. Kelsey, the approach you are using with learners who have limited formal schooling reflects what many experts would recommend, and that is to teach phonics based on language the students understand and can produce orally. Patsy Vinogradov has done a great deal of work focused on teaching literacy to individuals who are learning to read and write for the first time in English. Patsy recommends a balanced instructional method in which teachers balance top down/meaning-based teaching (i.e., vocabulary and comprehension) with bottom up/print-based instruction (i.e., phonemic awareness, phonics, sight words).

Adults who have limited print literacy in their primary language need teachers to draw their attention to how print works in English. Patsy outlines this Whole-Part-Whole method in this article, "Balancing Top and Bottom: Learner-Generated Texts for Teaching Phonics."

This approach is also highlighted in the LINCS ELLU online course Teaching Emergent Readers, which I highly recommend to any teachers working with this special group of adult learners.

Although many adult ESL teachers have been trained in teaching language, most of us have not been trained in how to teach reading. For those who have never been trained to teach reading, these resources can help teachers get started.

Questions are always welcome here on LINCS!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP


We do teach phonics to adult ELLs, but we require they be at least high intermediate level speakers before we get into phonics.  We are using Voyager Intro that is published by New Readers Press.  Voyager has a complete series of four levels, but the books past the intro book are not so helpful.  They take a very big leap after the intro book.  In conjunction with Voyager, we are using Steck Vaughn's Fundamental writing book.  Yes, it's called "writing", but most of it is basic phonics.  It's very visual and our students love it.  Even with these two texts, it's not enough.  I'm always looking for other things, especially a listening program for our ELL learners.  We use Reading Horizons for our American-born folks, but have not had success with our ELL learners using Reading Horizons. We have our own small library with books from beginner level to intermediate level that our learners can check out and we encourage our learners to bring their own materials of interest.  We also encourage all of our parents of small children to enroll them in the Imagination Library and our students can practice reading those books with their tutors so they can then read to their children.

Thanks for the shout out, Susan!  Much appreciated.  I think the link you shared on "Balancing Top & Bottom" actually just leads to a handout from a workshop on the topic, however (lots of good activities here!).  The full article can be accessed here, through LESLLA:

I also wanted to mention the BATT, Basic Alphabetics Tests & Tools, available through my office, ATLAS, in St. Paul: .  

Brief description of this resource:  BATT strives to provide a ‘principled’ system for ABE/ESL teachers wanting to develop their students’ knowledge of Roman alphabet letters, English letter-sound patterns, sight or high frequency words, and transfer of those letter-sound-word skills to text fluency and comprehension. This 71-page resource includes: (1) teacher-friendly tests for determining known and unknown skills, (2) evidence-based reading instructional practices, orders, approaches, and five lesson plans* for teaching unknown skills, (3) teacher-tested lists of other activities and materials, and (4) time-saving teacher resources. 

Thanks for this discussion,

Patsy Egan

ATLAS Director, Hamline University

Hi Susan,

A LINCS Community user emailed LINCS Support seeking "Balancing Top and Bottom: Learner-Generated Texts for Teaching Phonics" by Patsy Vinogradov. Unfortunately, the link you sent no longer works, and I can't find the article elsewhere online. Do you know where I may be able to find this piece for our users? Thanks!

Stefanie Gray
LINCS Support

Thanks, Stephanie. Here's the link to Patsy's article on top down and bottom up processing in teaching reading to emergent readers. I also fixed this in my original message above. This article is in the proceedings from a LESLLA conference in 2009.


Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition

I appreciate all of the comments made in this very useful discussion! I teach a course called, "Teaching Phonemic Awareness and Phonics," offered to teachers of very young learners entering the process of acquiring reading skills.

There is a lot of research to support the fact that oral language development must precede phonics instruction. Phonemic awareness (the ability to recognize individual sounds (phonemes) is critical to literacy development. Without that awareness, phonics makes no sense because it is an artificial interpretation of sounds. One would assume that among adults, that phonemic awareness has already been developed, but it needs to be recognized and emphasized prior to phonics instruction.

As a rule, if a student enters 4th grade without good reading skills, the missing link is explicit phonics instruction, which he will not receive after 3rd grade. Those are the folks we get later in our programs. Phonics is not considered by the International Reading Association as the only path to reading (yes, sight words must play a role!), but without it, people simply struggle with reading, and they always will.

Thing is that phonics instruction can be boring, and it should be taught in small segments. Making it fun can increase the time spent there as well! Leecy

Phonics  is just one piece of the puzzle when teaching reading instruction.  There are 5 componentes to teaching reading:  Phonemic awareness, Phonics, Vocabulary, Fluency, and Comprehension.  Yes, phonics is a big part, but do not overlook the other components.  Leecy, is correct in stating the students need phonemic awareness.  An excellent way to practice this by making students aware of the number of graphemes(letters) and (phonemes(sounds) in each word and having them manipulate the sounds.  I taught students with dyslexia using the Scottish Rite "Take Flight" program, and students learned the sounds by how the mouth was formed.  For example, the letter b and p were both called "lip puffers" but the b is voiced and the p is not .  Students should be able to add, take away, trade, switch and repeat sounds to a word.  For example: Say "top"  students echo "top" then break it down into phonemes t-o-p.  Next the teacher could say, "If this says top, show me pot."  The students should know you switched the beginnng sound and the end sound.  Each time the teacher would make just one change to the word.  Think of word chains: top>pot>hot>hit>hip>hips>lips>lip>sip>sis

Students need to understand that each word consists of graphemes and phonemes.  For example "top"has 3 graphemes(letters) and 3 phonemes(sounds) 1 letter for each sound, but if you take the word thick, that has 5 graphemes(letters) and has 3 phonemes(sounds) because th is a digraph and only makes 1 sound, and the same is true for ck.  So when you break "thick" into phonemes, it also has just 3 sounds.  Th - I - ck.  

While teaching adults to read, it is crucial to make them understand that the graphemes (letters) can represent more than 1 phoneme (sound).  Look at the word eight.  It only has 2 phonemes because "eigh" is a quadrigrapgh.  Eight, freight, weight all have the quadrigraph "eigh."

Although there are only 26 letters in the English language, those 26 letters consist of approximately 44 sounds (phonemes).  A list of these with examples can be found at:      

Although incorporating phonics is important,  please be aware it's not the only component to consider when teaching adults to read.

Lisa Hamid

Reading/ESL Specialist











Thanks for addressing so many related aspects to literacy, Lisa. Indeed! I look at phonics as an essential component of early English literacy acquisition for the vast majority of people, if not for all, but not an exclusive one, as you listed. Other components follow or parallel phonics development, for sure.

Story here, without using names. A very big and well-respected university faced a real dilemma back in the 80's, when a multi millionaire visited the city and the university to promote adult literacy. The institution wanted to support his efforts, of course, but it  also had to face that fact that he graduated from it with a BA without knowing how to read. He had been, he told me, completely illiterate. He dealt with the extreme embarrassment of being illiterate as a college graduate until he was fortunate enough to get hooked up to a Laubach Literacy tutor who understood dyslexia and taught him how to read in a library program that used Laubach's phonics/sight-word approach. At the time, I was a Johnny Appleseed for Laubach Literacy, which later joined with Literacy Volunteers of America to become ProLiteracy. When I met the gentleman, he beamed. He just couldn't wipe the smile off of his face, thankfully. I couldn't, either! I'm still smiling! Leecy

It is interesting to see the various ideas about phonics  and English language learners.  I am deeply interested in knowing, however, what success looks like with this approach.  Can any of you who uses phonics with non-literate adult ELLs talk about what your measures of success are?  Do they learn literacy faster than those who do not get direct phonics immediately?  

What percent-- approximately-- of the non-literate learners actually "get" phonics?   How long does it take?  How do they USE phonics when so much of the beginning language needed for reading is not regular and decodable? Are sight words taught alongside phonics?  If so, how do you explain to learners that the phonics they are learning is not helpful with so much basic language?  

I am very skeptical about introducing phonics too soon-- but am willing to be persuaded with some hard evidence that it is a good approach...

And while I, too, am deeply inspired by those like the millionaire who learned to read with Laubach, I hope we will all remember that his case has almost nothing to do with being a non-literate adult-- (very different from being an illiterate adult.....) 


Robin Lovrien 

Thanks for the questions and clarifications, Robin. I hope you'll drop in and tell us more about non-literate vs illiterate. From Google, I read, "There's a difference between illiteracy and non-literacy. An illiterate person can neither read nor write written texts in his native language, while a non-literate person's language has no written text, no alphabet." From that point of view, any native English speaker who cannot read is illiterate. Correct?  Leecy

Hello Leecy and all, I am curious how people are using these terms related to print literacy skills. I tend to refer to learners who speak a language that has no written form as preliterate and those who have had no or limited formal schooling as non-literate. I'm interested in how people understand and use the term literate -- and how about semiliterate? -- which I've heard as well.

It's helpful to share how we are using these terms since our understanding can differ.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition


HI Susan and Leecy, 

In our program we use preliterate to refer to those who are not literate in any alphabet, including their mother tongue. We use semiliterate to refer to those who are literate in at least one language and who have had some exposure to the Roman alphabet. I'd like to know how others use the terms too - we just do this for  our specific programs. 

Hello All, in my teacher trainings I use the definitions found in this article by Burt, Peyton and Schaetzel (2003):

I oftentimes hear teachers use "pre lit" to mean students who have no literacy in their L1, or who are beginning literacy students in English. According to the article, this is not correct. I've read that a common definition for "semiliterate" is someone with 1-6 years of formal ed. I like the term "emergent reader" because it's positive. It's also more of an umbrella term that can include our students' variations on years of formal education and literacy in L1.


I love that we are opening this door into better understanding different degrees of literacy and different terms used by different groups to define those characteristics. And we haven't even touched on other literacy-related terms, the most common of which might be "functional literacy," which includes numeracy and other life skills, "computer literacy," or "workplace literacy." We can start a very enjoyable activity here: a Community Dictionary that attempts to interpret literacy-related terms with the purpose of educating all of us to the many variables affecting early reading development among adults. If you throw out a term and no one objects, I volunteer to enter our definitions in our Community Library. What think? Given the discussion so far, I'll throw out a draft initial entry.

Illiterate: an outdated term formerly describing an adult who cannot read in any language, including his own native tongue.

Your turn. Do you agree? How shall we define that. What other terms shall we work on? Leecy

Hi Leecy, how about emergent reader and developing reader? What exactly is an emergent reader and when do they cross the line to be a developing reader? I'll propose this for emergent reader. I'm interested to see what others think and can add to it.

Emergent reader: a learner of any age who is new to print literacy, learning to read for the first time, whether it's in their native language or in an additional language. Learning starts with letter sounds, blending sounds into 3-4 letter words, letter names, letter formation (upper and lowercase), and the most common sight words.






The Center for Applied Linguistics published definitions for terms for levels of reading a few years ago (it was cited in this thread-- the one by Burt & Peyton)--- I am not sure if these new definitions coincide with those-.  Just a couple of comments on the definitions offered here.  In my 45+ years of reading instruction, "illiterate" referred to a person who was unable to read at all despite instruction, while "functionally illiterate" referred to a person who knew what literacy was but could not get to a level of functional literacy,-- a level which varies from language to language and culture to culture--  4th grade used to be the level for functional literacy in our country, but that level has risen quite a lot, I believe.  

Also-- to me, emergent readers are those who are completely non-literate in any language and who are learning the concept that print represents sound and speech-- which is why I object so strongly to starting them off with text and phonics.  A couple very poignant articles about this phenomenon have been published-- Patsy Vinogradov's study "Maestra! The Letters Speak!"  is one-- another is an article published by LESLLA that is somewhat hard to find-- it was in the proceedings of the first or second LESLLA symposium I believe. It was a write up of a project in Tasmania that worked with non-literate refugees.  The project shone for its emphasis on CONTEXT-- the booklet the teachers created for instructing learners in the concept of literacy was done entirely about the learners's living situations and with pictures of people in the learners' community.  The major breakthrough the teachers saw was when the students realized that text had something meaningful to communicate to them.   It is that realization, I believe, that is referred to when reading experts say "you only learn to read once"-- in other words, once the brain has recognized and accepted that print conveys something, it will ALWAYS have that notion.  This is why even very low educated students are different from non-literate ones (and not only is it the acceptance that print conveys a message, it is the effect that literacy has on the brain that is a critical difference).  For even  the low literate, that barrier has been crossed, though they are not yet expert in text.    The only challenge in learning to read in a NEW language is figuring out how the written expression conveys the oral code.  As someone else in this thread reiterated, it is not necessary to teach anyone to decode who already knows how to decode.--that is, who knows that print represents the oral language --... but it is necessary to teach the CODE to those who do not know it (i. e. those from other orthographies)--- while it is necessary to teach the CONCEPT of code conveying something to those who are non-literate before they begin to wrestle with the code itself.   

Robin Lovrien  


Hello Dr. Robin and all, I have been using phonics with non and semiliterate adults, mostly refugees who are unfamiliar with the Roman alphabet, since 2009. Since 2015 I have also been using phonics in classes with adult refugees and low literate Spanish speakers. Our community college ESL classes rely heavily on books and writing for instruction, especially as students progress through the levels, so at our new arrival school, we felt that we needed to introduce foundational reading and writing as soon as possible. Students are eager to begin reading and writing. I use many sources to help teach handwriting and letters/sounds, but my main source is my own curriculum At the River and Other Stories for Adult Emergent Readers (Wayzgoose Press, 2016). The book introduces a few consonant sounds at a time along with one short vowel. Students decode CVC words, then read short stories with CVC words and common sight words. It's a very gradual, systematic and focused approach, and over time, they do "get" phonics. The Wayzgoose Press site has a link to the free teacher's guide which includes an outline of the book. The book teaches directly the short vowels, single consonants, and digraphs sh, ch, th, and ck. Because the lessons are very focused on just a few sounds and decodable words at a time, students really master the sounds and then are able to recognize them in other words they need to know that don't follow the phonetic patterns they're learning. The focused practice gives them a strong connection with the sounds and then they are able to apply what they've learned.

Our classes meet for 15 hours a week, 3 hours a day. I use the literacy material for about an hour a day, 4 days/week. The rest of the time is spent with other ESL beginner topics (family, health, money, safety, etc). I use letter/sound flash cards daily throughout class which helps tremendously. When I had only refugees with 0-2 years of formal ed in their L1, and no familiarity with the Roman alphabet, they were able to finish At the River in about a year. Now, I have students who have 2-6 years of formal ed and some familiarity with the Roman alphabet, and it takes about six months. We find that this approach helps students build a firm foundation for literacy in English, and they can move more quickly with the long vowels and consonant blends in future classes.

This is the approach that has worked for me and my students in our context. Thanks for this discussion - it's fascinating to hear what others are doing and what's working for students!

Shelley Hale Lee




Shelly--- this seems like a very realistic and effective approach to learning the English code.  I like that sounds are introduced slowly and within the context of the stories.  I will need to check out that series.   It seems as well that the great advantage you have is LOTS of instructional time.   It is so unfortunate when ELLs have only 4 or fewer hours of English per week.  It is nearly impossible for an adult brain to make any sense of language in that little time-- (unless you are a highly motivated college foreign language learner with amazing metacognitive skills!!!) . You are so fortunate to have so much time for your learners-- that and excellent teaching are clearly contributing to great  progress for many.    

I wanted to make a plug here somewhere for a phonics book for English language learners that I used for many, many years-- "English Sounds and Spelling"    Authors were McClelland, Hale, &Beaudikofer (long out of print but available on Amazon).  This was the cleanest, most streamlined version of phonics for English learners I have ever encountered.  I has excellent black and white line drawings and a good number of practice exercises-- which I convert into oral activities (e.g. the great minimal pair drills for the short vowels).  It also covers certain spelling/phonics patterns for long vowels, etc.   Since it is out of print, you can copy and make the drawings into fantastic games and sorting activities.... the foundation of many of my phonics-based games and activities.      

Robin Lovrien 


As a busy teacher (!), I was drawn to the hook from "" for whether he/she felt teaching phonics in the ESL classroom had substantial benefit.  I have found it has some limited benefit when, as she writes, teaching students whose written systems do not include English letters, or like the Somali Bantu, do not have a written system.  But I never rely on phonics-based instruction that I've typically seen in print, as I rarely see things that lend themselves to having the students make progress in their new country.  They can, like she says about "false readers," learn to pronounce the word, but it is not like American children who have the scaffolding of aural understanding.  We need to have adult ELLs see context as well.  Teaching CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT even to the highest level of my ELL classes is extremely important.  I have to say I am much more a fan of flooding rich-contextual material on students rather than isolated phonics instruction, but the key is being judicious of your student's background and where the best research points for your students' level and classroom makeup.  I use a great phonics-based picture book put out by Pro Lingua Associates ("A to Z") that is very useful with adult learners. 

Leigh. Good points. There is certainly no need to implement phonics instruction among students who can decode in any language. Among ELLs, phonics should only be taught if the student has not learned to match sounds to letters and combinations of letters. Like you, I believe in context! Always! That's the way into the adults heart! And if food is added to the event, well, results are even better. I found that I really had to watch my weight while teaching ELLs, and I just couldn't wipe the smile away with a napkin! :)

That noise you heard on opening this thread was Robin Lovrien loudly cheering agreement with Leigh's insistence on CONTEXT CONTEXT CONTEXT!!!!   ALL of the research on adult learning confirms the amazingly simple idea that if adults are learning something they WANT and NEED to learn, they will retain it and engage with it (but it should be added that the information and language have to be accessible, too-- I think of the situation described here a few weeks ago about a workplace effort in which the students did not engage much at all-- I can only think the language and the lessons were possibly too abstract for the participants with limited English to apply to their work situation).  

I have cited here before the wonderful study by Schalge and Soga (2008) in which adult ELLs were asked why they dropped out of their ESL program.    The dropouts cited several factors--- NONE of which were the usual -- work conflicts, child care, transportation.  Instead the adults noted that they were not interested in the content of many of the lessons offered -- they specifically cited a lesson on cooking (they felt they were being taught to cook, which they already knew how to do) and one on figuring out how to navigate the airport (many were refugees and undocumented..WHY would they go to the airport??) .   And another factor was the irritation they experienced at having to wait in class for the much more challenged and slower students to get through a lesson before they (the more advanced ones) were able to proceed.   They expressed annoyance at the pace of the classes when teachers had to slow down to have students repeat things, help them understand what was going on-- all those things we KNOW happens in a mixed level class--- and even in a supposedly NOT mixed level class.    And another cheer for Leigh, who notices that students who are learning English letters or those who are completely non-literate will not profit from phonics much until they have an aural basis for analysis and understanding.  These latter factors point to the extreme need for high-level differentiation within a given classroom--which can --and in my mind, SHOULD, include differentiation of content so that content is highly relevant to given learners.   

Context (relevance) and highly differentiated instruction is critical to a larger picture of success for ELLs, I firmly believe.  

Robin Lovrien 



Many TESOLers are using games to teach, at least as ancillary tools. Students respond very favorably to phonics Bingo, Four-of-a-Kind Consonant card  games, Rhyming Words

Card games, Vowel Sounds card games, and Phonics and Spelling Puzzles, among other games.

In fact, Elaine Kirn Rubin has created, tested, and proven these and much more in her Motivating Activities and Games In Context series, or MAGIC for short.

See them at or email to


After re-writing US English phonetically in truespel based on phonics and using no special symbols, I realized that I could use  a spreadsheet to evaluate  each sound and find the frequency of ways each were spelled in traditional spelling.  I used another database provided by Colins Cobuild winch gave frequency numbers for the number of times that words appeared in typical (newspaper etc.) text.  The top 5k words of English had 15.4M total instances in the database, with the top word "the" having 1M instances.  Teachers would be interested in reviewing some of my studies at under the "resources" button..  Truespel makes all things easier, even spreadsheets.

My professional work currently consists of almost entirely of teaching teachers to use games and hands-on activities to achieve that very high level of differentiation that I am constantly going on about-- using games and activities with highly relevant, personalized content to manage an entire classroom for an entire teaching period.    My dissertation was about using learning centers -- a term referring to locations around the classroom which students go to-- or, activities and games that students bring to their own tables or desks-- in adult ESOL classrooms.  My research indicated a strong effect  on deepening the learning of students-- plus qualitative research in which students expressed amazing preference for self-directed, self-paced games and activities over teacher-fronted learning.....

I write about games and activities that I use at, if anyone is interested in learning more about this.   I often teach about the games now in conjunction with instruction about phonological skills-- the pre-phonics skills needed for effective language and reading and writing.   

Games are effective at ALL levels of instruction for any content.   

Robin Lovrien 

Dr. Robin, 

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and your webpage! I am eagerly looking forward to reading and learning from it. I currently train volunteer tutors in teaching ESOL to refugee and immigrant adults, and I am constantly stressing to them that they must teach vocabulary and concepts in a relevant, meaningful context, and that they must give the learners ample amounts of useful and engaging practice, like games and activities. I would love to hear more thoughts about successful differentiation among different levels - always a challenge for the teacher and the learner!


I use phonics all the time during my ESL lessons.  I will phonetically spell words under correct spellings of words that come up in class that are difficult to pronounce.  I also do it for every vocabulary word that comes up in any reading, writing, speaking or listening activity.  I also have flashcards for verbs and past tense that I am using, with spelling in black, and phonetic spelling underneath in red.  My students love it, and their pronunciation improves tremendously after they see the phonetic spelling of a word.


Thanks so much for your post, Deena. What level are the students you are working with? Would you be able to explain for us the phonetic spelling system you are using in your instruction?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

By design, phonics is used to teach native-English-speaking children to associate sounds they already hear and recognize with symbols (the alphabet) that may be new to them.  It is not an appropriate teaching method for beginning ESL students because they cannot usually hear the sounds that are not in their native language.  They may not be able to distinguish between /l/ and /r/, for example, or /f/ and /v/.  And they very likely will have problems with our many vowel phonemes (not just "long" and "short" ones) as represented by just 5 letters.  When you are helping students hear sounds that are not in their native language by writing a close proximity of the spelling, you are teaching phonemic awareness, not phonics. Additionally, some adult learners come from langauges that use the Roman alphabet, so the symbols are not necessarily unfamiliar to them.  As mentioned by several people, teaching adult learners to read and spell in English is much more complicated than "phonics," and personally, I wish adult ELL instructors would stop using the term and definitely trying to make a square peg fit in a round hole that it was not designed for.  Teaching our adult learners using the same techniques used to teach English-speaking children to read may be inappropriate strategies for teaching adults who do not have a "native ear" and typically already have some sense of "sound-to-symbol" relationships.

I'm starting to see by these posts, however,  that many people are using the word "phonics" just to mean teaching reading strategies.  (At least, that's what I hope I'm seeing.)  I agree that it is important to teach reading strategies, including the spelling system of English at all levels, but phonics, in the true sense of the word, cannot be effectively used until phonemic awareness (especially of the differences between L1 and English) is established, and that may take quite some time to develop.

I understand that because of my background in linguistics and TESOL, I may be more of a stickler for this distinction than other instructors, so I appreciate your patience with my "semantics" issue.




Hello Glenda,

I am helping an experienced ESL/ESOL teacher and curriculum writer with a basic literacy curriculum for adult learners whose first languages include several African languages and, in every case, an English Creole that has some of the sounds of American English, but not all and, for example, that does not use final consonants, and is not usually a written language. I have been wondering if we should use a phonics approach, as they have been speaking English (Engli) since they were children, or a phonemic awareness approach. The focus of their classes will be reading and writing in American English. Any advice about this situation?

David J. Rosen



David, thanks for the question! While writing a literacy grant for Uganda many years ago, I Approached ProLiteracy to join the project as a partner to teach literacy in that country. They told me that Ruth Colvin, who is till active at 1001 (!) had worked in Africa using the Language Experience (LE) approach. I don't have details at this point.

When I thought about it, the practice sounded perfect if native speakers were trained to use it effectively. The grant never came about (It was a hoax, of all things!) but the process sounded very promising. Beyond training tutors to use LE, we included strategies that had families recording stories that were then played, transcribed, and illustrated for students. I loved the idea. I wonder if it is being used anywhere in Africa or elsewhere. What do others here think? Leecy

Glenda, I am so glad that we are revisiting this topic and really appreciate the points you make regarding the terminology used when we help ESL adults develop literacy skills in English. I wonder if you might say a bit more regarding the difference in recommended approaches for developing reading skills among three types of second-language learners: (1) those who are literate in their native languages, (2) those who are not, and (3) those whose native language does not employ alphabetic principles.

I also wonder how you and others here might regard the Phonics Prep discussion that introduced our weeklong dialogue, "Let's Talk Phonics," led by Kathy St.John, in which we focused mainly on native speakers but mention ESL instruction here and there. 

Thanks! Leecy